Author: June
see prolouge or chapter 1 for notes, warnings, disclaimer


Warnings: glossy lemon

Notes: Takes place immediately after chapter 8. The second part takes place a few days later.

Reformation/Reaffirmation + Chapter 9 (cont)

+

When I worked in the laundry, I unfolded Duo's bandanna from a strip of cloth to a large triangle and tucked all of my hair up into it. If the yard was like a blast furnace in the summer, then the laundry was a swamp that smelled of static guard instead of mud and had giant stacks of towels instead of dead trees. The washing machines were large open vats of detergent and scalding water that required constant attention so that the towels and uniforms didn't get wound around the agitator in the middle, keeping the rest of the wash from getting clean. When the water drained, leaning over the edge of the machine to scoop out the laundry required enough balance not to fall in and enough strength to lift heavy mounds of material from the wash to the cart with the long paddle used for stirring the wash when it was running.

And I got to do it every day this week, which meant that I didn't get free time for visitors, which meant that I couldn't talk to Heero about what he'd been able to see, or Duo about what this meant for our so-called investigation. There was only Karl, and he was still floating above the ground with the knowledge that his longest and cruelest tormentors were finally gone. He wasn't yet interested in talking to me about the case - namely that whoever'd done it had tried to make it look like Benji's death, but had really been caused by something else, something that Heero had hopefully been able to see before Prescott had him escorted from the premises. Or locked up. Or shot.

I stirred the clothes in the wash and admitted that my paranoia was perhaps getting a little ahead of itself. Even though the preventers didn't have power here as law enforcement officials, they were still civilians, and Heero would not have been harmed for wandering in a place he shouldn't have been. Surely not.

Still, a visit would have been nice, or a phone call from Trowa, or something. But, no, I was stuck in the swampland from Hell, washing towels. My friends could be showing up to see me right now, during my regular free time and they'd be turned away with no other explanation than "He's not available today." And then they would know that I was being punished for something I'd done and Heero would assume that it was his fault and feel guilty about it without telling any of the others or seeking confirmation from me. He'd think it was his fault when really it was that I'd stuck around past lock down in my friend's room so I could get laid. It was quite odd, in fact that, three days after Basker and O'Malley's deaths, I had heard nothing from Prescott or anyone else about my being at the crime with Heero. Not a word about the consequences and, somewhat less surprising, not a word about the crime itself. The past three mornings I'd awoken expecting a summons to her office and gotten nothing but the cold shoulder from Onur and a few hours of laundry duty to look forward to.

I wouldn't, of course, do much to clear up the misunderstanding with Heero, except maybe to tell him that it wasn't his fault without revealing the real reason why. Maybe I'd lost track of time in the library while studying, if he pushed for an answer, which he wouldn't, because he didn't ever. I hefted clothes from the washer into the cart and shook my head at that particularly pathetic fib. I'd only just informed Heero that I devoted nothing more than the bare minimum to my studies. Maybe I'd tell him that I'd been with Karl, relating to him what I'd witnessed from the scene of the murders, and that would basically be the truth. I wouldn't have to fill in any of the details because Heero never asked for-

"Psst!"

My back went rigid bending over the washing machine as I heard and then very suddenly felt the presence of another person somewhere close behind me. My fingers flexed on the grip of the paddle and readied for a fight. No one snuck up on me in the laundry unless they wanted a fight. It was the best place for it, with the most places to hide and the dull roar of the machines drowning out the sound of footsteps and breath.

My jaw clenched and I spun around, keeping my hand firmly on the paddle behind my back, ready to swing if it looked like-

"Duo!" He grinned at me. "What the fuck are you doing here?" I tempered my initial shout to an urgent hiss, casting my eyes over the laundry room at the few other men bent over the washers or amongst the mounds of towels, folding and stacking. With the constant whir and hum of the machines, none of them appeared to have noticed his presence. I looked back to Duo where he stood at the base of the washer, and he was still smiling cheekily, eyes glittering under the brim of his cap.

"They wouldn't let me see you, so I came to find you myself. I figured you'd either be in the kitchen or the laundry." He called this up to me where I still stood, flabbergasted, on the metal platform at the top of the washer. As his voice reached my ear, it clicked that he was shouting to be heard over the machines.

"Would you shut up? Someone will hear you!"

He rolled his eyes. "Would you come down here, so I can stop yelling?"

"Gah. Yes, just be quiet." Dispensing with the formality of steps, I slid under the railing and jumped over the side of the platform, dropping the six or seven feet to the floor and landing right in front of him, forcing him a step back.

"Jeez, Wu!" Then he squawked a curse when I grabbed his arm and dragged him between two mounds of unfolded towels and uniforms. He stumbled to a stop when I let him go and took a moment to straighten his overalls and cap. I took that moment to stare at him and wonder how the hell he'd made it here without being spotted. He didn't appear as though he'd had a tough time of it. His cheeks were flushed with the moist heat and his bangs stuck to his forehead under his cap, but he wasn't too tense. He'd probably enjoyed himself, finding his way here.

He'd clearly come straight from work, the loose denim overalls dark with grease at the knees and hips - the latter most likely from where he'd wiped his hands. The dark blue shirt he wore probably used to be a t-shirt, but the sleeves and neckline had been cut out, so that I could see a bit below the notch of his collarbone; and his shoulders were exposed, his skin darkened to a freckly light brown. I could see the shirt clinging to his chest underneath the bib of his overalls. He looked healthy and excited and strong. He looked really good.

"I take it you weren't seen getting in?" I said, keeping my voice low.

He shook his head. "Nah. You definitely got good security around here, buddy. But nobody stops Duo Maxwell from getting into some place he wants to be." He crossed his arms over his chest and sniffed. "It's fruitless."

I glared at him. "You're insane."

He shrugged. "Yeah, well."

"And you could get us both into big trouble. I don't need to tell you this."

He shifted his hand to his hips, posture indignant. "No you don't need to tell me that. You should start by telling me what the fuck happened that Heero got bitched out by Une on Monday for coming here and seeing you, why Ms. Francesca Prescott called Une and bitched her out for letting Heero come here and snoop around, why Heero called me up two days ago to tell me that two Romefellar flunkies were strangled to death in the store room, and finally - and most importantly - why, when he tried to get in touch with you afterward to tell you that the cause of death was strangulation and not loss of blood, he couldn't get through."

My throat had gone dry at the very beginning of his list, and now I felt like, not only had all the moisture left my mouth, but every drop of blood had also drained from my face. I scrambled for something to say. "He couldn't get through because I had extra laundry duty this week," I managed lamely.

Duo snorted. "Yeah, I know that now, but Heero was assuming the worst, as he usually does, and thinking that it was something he'd done by dragging you into the middle of it. He told me the two of you went together to get a look at the bodies and that Prescott was super pissed when she found you both were there. He thinks he screwed things up for you, and that you're-"

"He actually told you all that?" I asked, momentarily distracted. Duo snorted.

"Course not - about half of it. I inferred the rest, as per usual."

I nodded, debating what to tell and what to keep quiet. "He didn't screw anything up for me," I finally assured him. "I was the one who dragged him into the middle of it. And the extra laundry duty isn't because of that. For some reason, there haven't been any repercussions from that day. My extra laundry shifts were for something else." I figured setting Heero's mind at ease was much more important than concealing the real reason for my unavailability this week.

"What's it for, then? What'd you do?" He searched my face with wide, concerned eyes. He only wanted an answer. He only wanted to know why the last few days had been so chaotic for his good friend and, presumably, for me.

"I was out past curfew with Karl. That's all. We were talking about Basker and O'Malley - the Romefellar flunkies who were strangled in the supply room," I added, because he wouldn't know their names. The word 'strangulation' was giving me some trouble. How had that not been obvious when Heero and I were examining the bodies? Why didn't I see marks? When had Heero? "We both knew them. They were bullies and they'd given us trouble in the past - lots of trouble in Karl's case. We had a lot to talk about."

He gave me an unsettlingly shrewd look. "...Ah." He didn't trust Karl. They'd barely spoken a complete sentence to each other since Duo had begun looking into our case.

It wasn't a lie, what I'd told him. It wasn't.

"Any leads? What did he think?"

"Uh, well, to be honest, he was too excited by the fact that they were dead and couldn't beat the shit out of him anymore to take the conversation too seriously." Still not lying.

He sniffed and then wiped his nose with a grubby hand, leaving a smudge of oil grease on his upper lip, like the shadow of a mustache. "Guess I can't blame the guy. I saw a few of those bruises. These guys musta been real assholes, huh?"

I nodded, relieved. "They were two of the worst. So," I started, looking to change the topic, "is Heero okay? He didn't, you know, really get into any trouble, did he?"

Duo gave a sharp shrug and abruptly dropped down to sit on the floor, propping his elbows up on his knees. "He'll be fine once I tell him you were unreachable because you missed curfew, not because of something he did. But Une was real serious about him not being allowed to take up the case, and he's really not happy about that. His voice was even tighter than usual when we talked."

I sat down across from him. "And what did you tell him?"

He shook his head. "What do you mean?"

"For example, did you mention what you're doing for Karl and me - using fancy software to uncover private information about war leaders who have died or were killed for potentially political reasons?"

He gave a flat humorless laugh. "Oh, that. Yeah, you think that might be of interest to a Preventer?"

"It would. And I know, outside of Preventers, Heero would want to know, would, I'm sure want to help in any way he could, but-"

"He'd lose his job in a second if he did, or if anyone found out he was looking into it."

"We couldn't ask that of him, or Trowa," I agreed. After what had happened, it was clear I'd made the right choice going to Duo for help.

"Not that I've been much of a help so far," he muttered, following my train of thought, "in place of an entire organization with access to resources I have to spend hours trying to hack into. I've got some shit to show you, but I can't bring it with me, and handing you a list of names isn't doing shit to keep you safe." He looked down at his knees, clearly frustrated with himself and the bind we were in.

"Preventers hands are tied; yours are not, and you don't have a boss to whom you feel obligated to report what you find," I replied. When this didn't appear to help his mood, I added, "And I trust you more than, I think, anyone." Now he looked up. I felt the need to try and wipe away the smear of dirt on his upper lip and clenched my fists in my lap. More than anyone in the world, you are my truest, most loyal friend, I finished silently.

Duo shook his head and grinned. "Sometimes, Chang, you outdo yourself."

Thankfully my face was already flushed from the heat of the laundry, and I was able to grumble, "Keep your expectations low, and anything other than spiteful rudeness will be a pleasant surprise." He laughed, and the mood was becoming dangerously sentimental, so I cleared my throat and returned to the more pressing matter of what Heero had been able to gather before he'd been kicked out of the storeroom. "Erm, Duo, did he say anything else to you when he called, anything at all?"

His grin shrank and then disappeared, and he nodded. "Yeah, he said a bunch of discouraging shit that you probably already know. He said that your keepers aren't releasing the bodies for an official autopsy, and that they will be the ones to alert the victims' families. Heero said they were taking care of all it, and handling the investigation themselves like they did with Benjamin Bennett."

"That sounds about right. RCNP is state run, but it's got its own people to manage every facet of something like this. Karl and I are realizing just how little oversight there is here." At Duo's look of incipient panic, I added, "But, I don't think it's so Prescott can make up arbitrary rules. I think it's so that we remain outside political influence. There are plenty of people who disagree with the whole idea of this place, and so Relena Peacecraft and the others who designed it wanted it to be safe from those who would try to change the way it was run, to turn it into something else."

Duo frowned. "Sure, but if there's no publicized code, and no way of getting rid of anybody who might be abusing their power, then Prescott's got full discretion and no real rules to break."

"Pretty much, though she probably doesn't see it that way. And neither would Relena."

"This is scaring the shit out of me; you realize that, right?"

I looked up. "Duo..." It came across as patronizing. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm fine. I'm not a target like they were, like Benji was."

He ignored my slightly condescending tone. "What about Quatre?"

I looked away, humbled. "And I am certainly not like Quatre."

"Bullshit, you're not,"he snapped, and I flinched. We started to argue, the surest way to express and mask helplessness.

"How could you possibly compare me to him?" I snapped back. "There are maybe a handful of people who will tolerate me sitting near them at lunch much less look to me as a friend, or even less realistically, as a leader."

Duo didn't appear to believe me in the slightest. "You don't think the clans of the L5 cluster would look to you for leadership if you offered it? The Long clan was one of the most powerful to ever to every settle out there. They would respect where you came from and what you've done for-

"I don't care about the L5 colony cluster, and they wouldn't care in the slightest for me. I did what I did for justice, not for colony independence or for some definition of rights and duties. I did what I did for Meiren and for Master Long. It was for me and for what I thought was right. And Quatre was not like that. He was an inspiration to all of us, everything he did - even Zero. He was brilliant and kind and selfless. He was unflinching. I am none of those things. I doubt myself all the time - I did during the wars when I didn't know whether to join you or not, to fight for anything other than myself, when I killed Treize, when I joined with Dekim Barton. Quatre was better than all of us, and he was certainly better than me.."

Duo watched me speak, searching for something in what I said, the brief flare of temper between us, already faded and gone. "Why do you idolize him like that?" he finally asked. "Because he's really not so different from you - you came from the same background as him; you fought for the colonies just like him, even if you claim it was for your own definition of justice. Hell, you were even twin angels of vengeance after his dad died and your colony self-destructed. He was totally screwed in the head after all that, just like you, and he-" Duo's throat closed on his words and he swallowed before trying again. "He couldn't get along in the new world any better than you could. He did worse than you; he ended up dead."

For a moment, we were right back in his office, hunched over his body, trying to shake him awake, realizing that he didn't have a pulse, that his hands were cold, though his face and his chest were still warm. Duo tried CPR, practically beating on his breast bone. He yelled at me to breath for him, and I did, watching his chest rise as I blew into his mouth, lips chilly and soft against mine. But he was gone, and when we talked to the doctors at the hospital, they told us that his blood was so full of sleeping drugs, no amount of electric current would have woken his heart up again.

I felt like he lay between us now, just an outline and a glimmer of bright hair. I felt like he'd been haunting me since I'd gotten here.

"We all loved him," Duo insisted. "But you... I think maybe you were in love with him, whether you knew it or not."

I looked up from the floor, away from the ghost of a pale hand resting near my knee. "You shouldn't speculate about things like that," I said, trying to sound threatening instead of shaken.

Duo shrugged and appeared contrite. "Sorry, I guess. I've just been wondering about it for awhile, you know? You spent a lot of time with him when those charges were first brought against you, and I know he was prepared to put all of the Winner family's resources at your back." He lowered his voice so that I had to lean in to hear him. "Which is why it makes no sense that he killed himself when he did. And if Quatre- if he didn't drug himself to death, if someone else did it to him..." His brow wrinkled down into a fierce scowl. "Shit, if he was murdered, then, Wu, I see you in that same boat. Powerful family, even more powerful convictions - you and he were made of the same stuff."

"Why are you not including yourself, Duo?" I asked softly. "The L2 White Fang members wanted you as their leader so badly, they would have sold off what little territory they had for you."

He snorted and shrugged me off with practiced ease. "Please. I'm not ashamed of where I came from, but I've got no illusions about it either. I'm just space trash who happened to fall into an expensive hunk of metal that made me famous for about fifteen minutes."

"You were the best pilot of all of us."

"I'm nobody," he muttered with finality. He looked me in the eye. "And that's fine. I never envied anything Quatre had, or where you came from, the fact that you had a whole fucking clan; I never cared. Figured it kept me safer. Nobody would try to take what I didn't have. And I couldn't miss not having it. But I, uh, I fucked up because I did have friends. And it's pretty fucking low to try and take those away, but they did it anyway." He rubbed the back of his hand in his eyes and blinked furiously, whether from the grit he'd just rubbed into them or from tears, I didn't try to guess.

"I don't care what you say, Chang; you're not safe here, whether you're like Quatre or Bennett or not. And I just wish there was something I could do to protect you. If I could get in here every day to make sure you made it back to your cell at night, I would do it. When Heero called to tell me that there'd been two homicides, I about had a heart attack. I yelled at him for, like, ten minutes for letting Prescott shove him out the door, for not barricading himself in your room with you, or at least leaving a gun under your pillow. And Heero, of all people, doesn't need someone yelling at him."

Maybe it was how upset Duo had gotten that made me do it, or maybe it was my friendship with Karl and my increasing familiarity with how to touch someone, but before I could think better of it, I slid forward on my knees and grabbed him into a hard hug. He returned the embrace with equal strength, releasing a sharp breath against my neck and tucking his chin so hard against my shoulder that his pointy jaw dug painfully into the muscle.

"I can't take it, you being here. I feel like one of these days I'll just lose it, and do something really stupid, and-"

"Duo, shut up."

"I am so fucking serious right now, Wufei."

"I can tell, and the thought of you ghosting through the ventilation system to rescue me and pull me out from under Prescott's nose does have a certain appeal, since both of us have a flare for the dramatic, but try to at least think it through a little more before you make us both fugitives from the law. Again." It was easier to say these things facing the pile of uniforms behind him, rather than looking him in the eye. I could feel his heart thudding steadily in his chest and his breath beginning to slow as it puffed against the strands of hair at the back of my neck. His arms tightened and loosened with periodic spasms.

"It'd be something to see," He murmured. "If only I still had Deathscythe, I could just step on the fence and you could walk out. I would make your exit one hell of a show, give all these punks something to remember you by."

I laughed for his benefit and then drew away from him. "It was really foolish of you to come here like this," I scolded, though my voice didn't hold much rancor. "I have to get the next load in the dryer and fold all this mess by dinner."

Duo sat back on his heels and took off his cap, raking his fingers through his hair and recomposing himself. "I can help you. It'll go faster that way."

"That's an even dumber idea than sneaking in here."

"I used to help you fold clothes when we lived together."

I flushed and got to my feet, turning to grab a towel. "That was different, and I didn't want your help then, either."

"You still want it now, right?"

Tired of the relentlessness of this conversation, I whirled on him with a growl ready, only to find him folding a uniform in entirely the wrong way. He didn't look up from his effort to roll the top half of the uniform down over the bottom.

"Even though I'm not a forensics expert and I don't have access to Preventer's military personnel files?"

I snatched the uniform out of his hands and went to the metal table set up for just this purpose, folding the legs at the knees, then the sleeves back at the shoulders, then folding the whole thing in half and in half again, so that the tag showed and the collar was straight. "Don't be an idiot. And quit with the self-pitying attitude. It doesn't suit you at all."

I felt him behind me and then I heard a low chuckle close to my ear. I finally looked his way when he draped one arm across my shoulders and leaned the other on the folding table. "Such a charmer." He'd managed to go from maudlin to, what was this - seductive? - in under fifteen seconds.

"What part of 'don't be an idiot' didn't you understand, Maxwell?" I said this while staring at the muscle that joined arm to shoulder to chest, wondering inanely whether the brown hair curling in the shadow of his underarm was as soft as it looked.

"Be safe buddy," he murmured, "and get to bed on time so I can come see you without sneaking in through the ventilation system."

I looked up from the odd distraction of his armpit. "Wait, you really came through the-"

He laughed, and I felt his fingers deftly untie the knot of the bandanna at the base of my skull. "Someone's coming," he whispered.

I turned to look, shoving him behind me, catching the bandanna as it slid out of my hair. I watched a cranky older inmate shuffle by with a cart full of folded uniforms. He didn't so much as glance up as he passed. When I turned back to find Duo, he was gone.

Letting out a great gust of a sigh, I flopped over backwards into the pile of towels, pulling several of them over my head. "Fuck," I said, voice muffled and intimate in my ears. I stayed there until I started to sweat in earnest and then got up to switch the wash to the drier.

+

I pressed him up against the slippery tiles of the shower wall, holding his hips steady with mine, boxing him in with my elbows on either side of his shoulders. He ran his hands up and down my sides, resting them at the base of my spine. "Anyone every tell you you've got an amazing body?" His pelvis thrust shallowly against mine and I lowered my head to his shoulder.

"No."

"Well, it's true, though you're probably better off not hearing it from too many people. Your ego would swell up beyond your control. It would need to be deflated somehow, and deflating an ego isn't fun, though I've gotten pretty good at it over the years."

He was rambling a little, which was fine. He was trying to distract himself and me from the noises coming from the other corner of the shower. Four days after Basker and O'Malley's deaths and already their shoes had been filled. The poor kid up against the far wall probably had only gotten a week's rest, and Karl knew it could have just as easily been him were it not for our arrangement.

"Yes, if there's one thing I know how to do, it's-" I raised my head and kissed him and he moaned into my mouth, more to block out the sound of the kid's strangled shout of pain than to express his enthusiasm for what we were doing. I hated putting on displays like this, but the benefits were worth it. I felt the men watching us, felt their evaluative stares, judging my ability to protect him, my ability to protect myself. I lowered one arm to pull his left leg up around my waist. I broke the kiss and kept my mouth by his ear.

"I think I'm probably gay," I admitted. "And I thought you'd want to know."

He spoke against my jaw, and I felt him smiling. "Damn. You mean I wasn't enough to get straight-as-an-arrow Chang to bend a little?"

The abruptness of the confession somehow wasn't phasing either of us. "Sorry, Karl, but I guess I was already bent."

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